Florida education officials recently posted a frank internal report about what led to the standardized testing flop that has consumed the ed reform debate for the past two months and sparked the biggest backlash yet against the state’s accountability system. Unfortunately, it received virtually no media coverage (one exception here), which is a bit head-scratching considering both the context and contents.
It essentially says, “We messed up.”
“The decision to make a significant change in scoring FCAT Writing in one year was flawed,” the report says. “Throughout the lifetime of the FCAT, there has never been such a dramatic change in scoring criteria in such a short time.”
Led by former Education Commissioner John Winn (pictured here), the just-the-facts review contrasts sharply with the bomb throwing from critics who fought change every step of the way and now deny progress, particularly for low-income and minority students. It is also, in a way, a good sign for the future – a reflection of leadership that is willing to admit mistakes and find remedies.
The report is humbling. It says the state moved too far, too fast in ramping up scoring criteria. External communication with school districts wasn’t strong enough. Internal communication with new Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson was lacking. Also, department staff didn’t move soon enough to determine potential impact of raising the bar: “Had this been done, perhaps the committee members and the Department would have changed the decision to move forward in less than a year.”
Robinson and other education officials have acknowledged some of these mistakes in general terms. But the report goes into more detail. It references confusion in a key July 5, 2011 memo to superintendents, and a year-long span in which the state Board of Education did not receive briefings about the changes. It points out that budget cuts forced the state to whittle away at a more optimal test design, and says transition at the top may have contributed to the communication problems. (After Gov. Rick Scott forced out former Commissioner Eric J. Smith, Winn stepped in as interim until the board hired Robinson.)
There’s no doubt the mistakes have undermined confidence in the state’s education system. It will require time and care to repair that. But it’s also true that many critics have gone beyond the kind of legitimate beefs soberly recounted in the report to flirt with demagoguery.
“It’s as if the Department of Education’s idea was to give teachers a poke in the eye,” one newspaper columnist wrote about the writing test, “and didn’t much care that kids would also feel the punch.” After school grades dropped this week, the Tampa Bay Times editorialized, “FCAT farce just gets worse,” while the Palm Beach Post raged, “Gov. Scott helped create the FCAT monster.” Never to be outdone, the Orlando parents group Fund Education Now suggested child abuse:
“What kind of a state,” it wrote, “purposely uses a faulty instrument to hurt children and harm their schools?”
Over the past decade and change, Florida’s track record in ed reform has been pretty good, particularly for the students who were most overlooked. Those gains didn’t come because the state was reckless, but because it mostly struck the right balance between urgency and realism.
In this case, that didn’t happen. But it’s not insignificant that the state is willing to own up to it.